Allies

[CW privilege, slurs]

Oh, I am about to get very annoyed.

  • Ally noun
    Someone who helps and supports someone else.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? There’s a lot of talk in the media and online about allies and how they’re so important in the fight for social justice. Just think about how many headlines or ledes you’ve seen with the phrase “well-known gay/trans/feminist ally”.

People quite often ask how to be a better ally, and since I am clearly one of the queer elite, it’s like I should have all the answers.

My answer to this question?

Don’t.

Don’t aim to be a good ally. Aim to be something so much more.

Let me explain what I mean.

Allies tend to be well-meaning, self-proscribed “liberal-minded” folx, who may not experience much oppression themselves, but they are aware it goes on, and they want to make sure you know they won’t stand for it. And it’s this last part that becomes a problem.

There’s a reason we have to keep reminding people that the A in LGBTQIA+ doesn’t stand for Ally.

Here’s an example conversation. And yes, I’m playing it up for effect, but the point still stands.

Person A: Wow, this thing about the trans bathroom bill is getting out of hand, we need to spread information about it better.

Ally: I’ll help!

Person A: Great! Person B has a blog post that has a really good breakdown of the laws involved, and Person C has gathered accounts of people who have been affected, we should  boost signal on those.

Ally: Cool. I made a Facebook post saying I am against the bathroom bill.

Person A: …Great. So, about boosting these posts?

Ally: But I put a transgender pride flag over my Facebook picture in solidarity. Can’t you see I’m trying?

Person A: Yes, but-

Ally: You people just don’t appreciate the efforts allies put in to helping you.

Like I said, most allies may start out as well-meaning, but very quickly it becomes about making sure you know they are trying, and the important information and the people who really need help get lost in the storm of self-congratulation and whining about being under appreciated. That comment I made earlier about reminding people that the A in LBGTQIA+ doesn’t stand for Ally? There was an actual petition to get it changed. Not only is this a lot of time and energy spent to ‘help’ a group that really doesn’t need it, it’s also complete erasure of Asexuals. That’s who the A actually stands for, by the way.

This attention-seeking and cookie-grabbing may make the allies themselves feel great, but it can leave those who are marginalised and oppressed feeling really unsafe around people they believed to be their friends. And as much of an introvert as a person can be, we all need company from time to time. It just leaves us in the position of having to look over our shoulders constantly, and that doesn’t make for healthy relationships.

Another thing allies have a habit of doing, and this does lend itself to a wider conversation, is appropriation. The putting a rainbow or trans pride flag over your Facebook or twitter picture. The using the language to talk about a person you don’t know because your friend uses it to describe themselves. The policing of safe spaces as though you deciding is final.

Now we get that you’re trying to help, but these things are not for you. The pride flags are for people who have spent decades being told they have no right to exist. The language is us describing the world in a way that allows us a space too. Safe spaces are where we can openly be ourselves without the fear of violence or bigotry that follows us in everyday life, and we retain the right to exclude allies as we see fit.

Here’s the perfect example that happened recently. Obviously this is from my point of view.

I was part of a group on Facebook where occasionally people would share blog posts for the rest of us to read and comment on as we saw fit. This last part is important.

One day recently one of the members posted a blog post about harassment, which is never cool, and how he felt he could now rise above it. The main gist was that this cishet guy had been called a homophobic slur whilst out running, but could put it behind him. It was dripping in privilege, and he had tagged it ‘LGBT’.

Naturally, the outspoken queers in the group (of which I was one) clapped back.

We made it very clear that we thought anyone experiencing harassment is shit, because if you’re a halfway decent human you know it is, but it was also a mark of privilege that he gets to walk away from it when the same thing happening to an actually queer person could result in a literal life-or-death situation. We weren’t saying he wasn’t allowed to feel good about walking away, we just asked that he acknowledge the privilege.

What he did instead was double-down and explain to us how we were reading the post wrong, and when we stood by our initial readings, he took the huff and left the group. This led to the admin of the group panicking and trying to find out “what actually happened”, and then the most ally post I have ever seen.

One of the group, who hadn’t been part of the original discussion, felt the need to write a long post about how he was “disappointed” that some of us felt the need to push an “agenda”, and that the group was “supposed to be a safe space” for us to share our stories. I will admit I was too angry to reply to this message, because this was someone literally saying the safety of cishet folk came first, but my friend from the first post did reply. And got called an asshole by the guy who made the post.

I left the group pretty soon after, because I am not openly out in my daily life, and now I was suddenly terrified that here were a group of people who knew things about me that could cause me serious harm, and I didn’t feel safe around them.

Now, the guy who wrote this reply post, while never outright claiming to be an ally as far as I know, I’m sure thinks of himself as an open-minded person, and he would support marginalised people. As seen here though, only if it doesn’t upset the status quo and make people uncomfortable.

Muffin. That’s not how the world works.

That leads me to the alternative to allies, a concept I got from reading this zine: http://www.indigenousaction.org/wp-content/uploads/accomplices-not-allies-print-friendly.pdf

Accomplices, not allies.

Now, as outlined in the zine, a lot of people don’t like the term accomplice, as it often has criminal undertones. And it can, because sad to say, sometimes criminal acts are the only way to draw enough attention to a problem of oppression to enact change. But it doesn’t have to be solely criminal.

To me, an accomplice is someone who actually does what an ally claims to: someone who knows that their voice is not the important one, that they don’t always have to get a cookie for their efforts, and will have their friends’ backs no matter what.

It makes me think of the old ‘joke’ about going to jail: your friend will be there to bail you out, but your best friend will be sitting in the cell with you going “well, shit.”

I don’t have to look over my shoulder to see what my accomplices are doing, because I know I can trust them implicitly.

Let’s try that earlier conversation again, with an accomplice in place of the ally.

Person A: Wow, this thing about the trans bathroom bill is getting out of hand, we need to spread information about it better.

Accomplice: I’ll help!

Person A: Great! Person B has a blog post that has a really good breakdown of the laws involved, and Person C has gathered accounts of people who have been affected, we should  boost signal on those.

Accomplice. Cool, can you send me the links? I’ll post them at Time X, because most of the people in my timeline are online then, so more will see it.

Person A: that’s really great, thanks. Actually, while I have you, can I ask a favour? There’s a protest at the weekend about D that I want to go to, but I don’t feel safe going alone. Would you go with me?

Accomplice: Sure! Where do you want to meet?

See the difference? Now obviously the degrees to which people can help is going to depend on their personal circumstances: health, finance, family dependants etc. can all play a part. Maybe posting a couple of links to Facebook or twitter highlighting articles and posts by marginalised voices is all you are able or feel safe doing. The point is, it’s THEIR voice being heard, not yours.

Now all of this could be read as an attack on people because they’re “not doing enough” or they’re “not doing it to [my] specifications”. If that’s the way you read it, chances are you’re an ally.

Like I said at the start, aim to be so much better. Your marginalised friends all certainly appreciate, even if they don’t always tell you.

If you need a quick way of remembering all of this, I point you to this tweet by my good friend Jim:

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